04/11/2012 03:44 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2012

Why I Practice Tai Chi

The first thing I need to say is the title of this piece is incorrect, and deliberately so. I used the term "tai chi" because that's what most people recognize. It's become almost ubiquitous in the popular culture. From commercials to Lisa Simpson (Homer: "How do you get through the day?" Lisa: "Oh, you know, tai chi, chai tea"), chances are that at some point in the next day or so you'll come across references to, or images of, mature adults moving slowly and gracefully.

Tai Chi, however, was originally practiced as a martial art in China. What most people are doing is a form of tai chi with a particular emphasis on wellness. These have obvious relevance in general as well as to specific populations, such as our elders, who are living longer and seeking grace in so doing.

The reason tai chi is able to have an emphasis on wellness, despite its origins as a martial art, is because of its foundation, which is millennia-old Taoist arts called neigong. "Neigong" generally means "internal energy development" or "human potential cultivation"; the translation is not exact, but you get the idea.

The family of neigong practices includes tai chi and its related internal martial arts of ba gua and hsing-i, as well as qigong, which like tai chi more people may have heard about.

Tai chi without neigong is like "Seinfeld" without Jerry. You get the general outline of a show, but the essence is missing. Much of the tai chi available is empty; sure, it's nice to move around, and there are benefits simply to shifting your weight and waving your arms, but there's so much more to it that too few teachers know. To really get this you need a teacher who does as well. But that's a topic for another piece.

Developing energy

Qigong is roughly translated as "energy development," and there are many forms, from very simple arm movements and waist rotations to complex sequences that directly engage the spine, joints, fluids and organs, as well as the body's "chi," or inherent energy. These have many applications, from general wellness to physical vitality to addressing specific illnesses. Tai chi, in a sense, can be considered a martial form of qigong.

Why all this background? Because it's important to understand the context and lineages from which these arts spring. The depth and specificity of the energy arts and the structures created to develop them are not to be taken lightly.

But, as always with this material, there is a built-in contradiction, because it's also important not to get too hung up on the structures. One wants to feel without getting floppy (wow, man, I'm in tune with the energy of the earth) and maintain a structure without getting too rigid (I will do this now and command the energy of the earth!). It is said that one "plays" tai chi, even though I'm using the nomenclature of "practice" (I tend to toggle back and forth between "rigid" and "floppy," always searching for that "golden mean").

I stand on the shoulders of giants

I was moved to write this because of an event I attended. It was a week-long push hands program taught by Bruce Frantzis, a lineage holder in the Taoist Water Method (he used the phrase "I stand on the shoulders of giants" several times during the week). He also is one of the world's most skilled and experienced martial artists, and he is a master of neigong. A giant.

Tai chi push hands is a beginning step toward applying tai chi to actual fighting. It's a two-person exercise that has cooperative and competitive aspects. Generally done in a forward-stance, backward-stance pattern, it trains you to feel the energy of an opponent, who is trying to control you and vice-versa. Again, generally, the way you know who was successful is based on either pushing or getting pushed off a spot, or in feeling and being able to act upon, but not necessarily acting upon, the opportunity to push the opponent.

It's cooperative because sometimes you are not trying to push the person off a spot but rather training yourself physically, mentally, and spiritually to feel where their weak point is and vice versa, but not actively trying to do anything with it. This allows the skill of knowing one's self and one's opponent to develop. It's competitive because, quite naturally, one doesn't want to be pushed. It also gets quite competitive because sometimes -- and depending how it's practiced, it could be usually -- the players ratchet up the pressure into a more "real" mode. Tai chi is, after all, a martial art, and so if one wants to gain skill one must begin to carry through the practices at speed and under intense pressure.

I will never be at Bruce's level. I'm sure somewhere in the world someone is or will be. But that, at the risk of offending him, is just not normal.

Don't get me wrong. I really enjoy push hands at all levels (and like the comment about teaching, that's going to have to be explored in a future piece). I also appreciate the martial arts.

Graceful aging

But mostly, what I'd can emulate is this -- he is over age 60, and has incredible health and vitality. He has bounce.

The population is aging. There are genetic 1 percenters, and there are people who manage through whatever combination of grace, luck, outlook, karma, good living, and whatever other factors come into play. Generally, however, people lose their bounce.

It becomes hard to bend over, pick up grandchildren, reach up for something from the cabinet. Health care, for both general wellness and for acute care, is more and more expensive.

I want to take control of my health.

I'd like to age well.

That is a characteristic people who practice and play tai chi have.

Closer to home...

My uncle is a very accomplished practitioner of the internal arts. I'm lucky to have him as a teacher, as well as being able to attend retreats and workshops with Bruce, who draws some of the best and most dedicated players in the world.

My uncle is 64 (I told him I'd bring up his age in this piece), and not only did he do several hours a day of moving back and forth and side to side, meaning his weight was constantly shifting from 100 percent on one leg to 100 percent on the other, he was doing so while someone was trying to push him. Plus he walked several miles a day to and from his hotel and restaurants.

By the way, he bounces when he walks.

Not everyone will achieve this level. I might not. But with consistent practice, or play, at least 20 minutes a day, I will continue to expand my physical, mental, and spiritual balance and resilience, my bounce, into old age, if I'm lucky enough to get there.

So that's why I practice tai chi.

Oh yeah, and I also drink a little chai tea...


I breath, play, and practice neigong in the forms of tai chi and qigong, with a little taste of bagua and related material. I'm a journalist in El Paso, Texas, where I also live and teach neigong in the forms of tai chi and qigong. Look me up on Facebook.

My main teacher is Steve Barowsky at the Center for Internal Arts, in El Paso, and I also have studied for more than 10 years with Bruce Frantzis, founder of Energy Arts, in workshop and retreat settings primarily in California and at Brookline Tai Chi in Brookline, Mass.

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